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Strengthening Families Before a Crisis

February 7, 2013


Too often we’re so focused on the crisis that we don’t get to the core issues.

Greta Fillingim

Clinical Supervisor

Another Road to Safety

When a 23-year-old South Hayward woman was punched in the stomach by her boyfriend, she went into premature labor with twins.

One twin survived, but died a year later of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS, or “crib death”).

Child Protective Services (CPS) contacted Alameda County’s Another Road to Safety (ARS), a unique program developed by Alameda County’s First 5 agency, and based on creating relationships to strengthen families.

An ARS family advocate began to visit Rachel (not her real name) weekly, trying to help her cope with her abusive boyfriend, the death of her baby and her other child, an increasingly aggressive toddler.

Services and support

The family advocate connected Rachel to counseling and other community services. When Rachel confided that she was using methamphetamine and was scared she might lose her son, the advocate enrolled her in a residential drug treatment program where she could bring her son.

Then the advocate continued to meet with Rachel weekly, offering support and finding community resources for her son. Soon after her release from the program, Rachel and her son moved to Los Angeles to be closer to family and away from her boyfriend. She still stays in touch with her advocate and sends photos of her son.

“What made the difference for her is that when she realized she really was in a crisis, she already had someone in place, someone she trusted,” says Greta Fillingim, clinical supervisor for Another Road to Safety’s program in Hayward.

Another road to safety

When CPS receives a report of possible child neglect or abuse, it rates the family’s level of risk: very high, high, moderate or low. In many cases, if the problems aren’t rated “very high risk,” nothing more is done.

But in Alameda County, families not rated “very high risk” are invited to enroll in ARS, if they have a child under age 5 and live in one of two target neighborhoods (East Oakland and South Hayward).

“We wanted to provide services to families that were not in severe crisis,” says Margie Burton, ARS former clinical supervisor. “Our services would prevent them from being turned over to CPS again — which would require more funds and eventually could lead to having the child removed from the family.”

The Another Road to Safety (ARS) strategy includes several key elements: home visiting, relationship building, reflective supervision and family activities.

Home visiting

Participants get up to 9 months of weekly home visits by a family advocate, who helps the family find services they need — parenting classes, child care, respite care, mental health or domestic violence counseling, nutrition advice, depression and substance-abuse screenings and treatment, developmental screenings for all the children, and even money for food and diapers.

“Our job is not just to work with them for 9 months and then leave,” says Greta Fillingim, clinical supervisor for Another Road to Safety’s program in Hayward. “We want to get them engaged in the community and connect them to resources so they can lower their stress levels and risk factors for future abuse.”

Relationship building

According to Margie Burton, a former clinical supervisor at ARS, the services are provided by advocates who are from the community in which they’re working and, as much as possible, they’re matched with the families in language, ethnicity and background.

“The idea is to be relationship-based, so there can be a deeper level of understanding between the family and the advocate,” Burton says.

Family Advocate Ruth Gallo says advocates visit families with them once a week as well as become very familiar with the relatives and neighbors.

“It’s almost like we become part of the family,” Gallo says. “Anything they might need, I’ll help them find, so I get asked questions about legal assistance, finding housing — once I was asked to help baptize a baby.”

Reflective supervision

Family advocates build those relationships with the support of “reflective supervision” by talking about feelings and approaching different situations.

In the beginning, Gallo says she wasn’t very comfortable with it because she felt like she was talking about herself and not the client.

“But now I see the value in it, because how I feel impacts the work I do with my clients,” Gallo says. “With reflective supervision, you focus on your feelings and how that affects your work with the families.”

Family activities

The ARS program also includes parenting classes on topics, such as parent-infant bonding, family rituals and school readiness. They involve families in fun and creative ways, such as the four-week hands-on program ARS provides in partnership with U.C. Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science.

“This is a program that’s really math- and science-based for preschoolers,” Fillingim says. “But it turned out to be such a mental health program.”

Fillingim says the families would come, eat pizza together, have circle time, and do art projects with their kids. Then they would have a meeting to talk about their kids and their concerns.

“It was so transformative for the parents and the children to have a fun time bonding together,” Fillingim says. “Too often we’re so focused on the crisis that we don’t get to the core issues. Unless we slow down and get to the family, build their strengths, we continue to react to the crises instead of being proactive.”

According to Hector Mendez, executive director of La Familia Counseling Services in Hayward, one of the two pilot sites for Another Road to Safety, describes the program as “a philosophical change” in how one thinks about protecting children.

When there are problems, “the ARS team moves in like a new member of the family, someone who is calm and can see the problems and gradually strengthen and preserve the family,” Mendez says. “It’s the way things should have been done all along.”

Originally written by Claudia Miller.